This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on November 7, 1982
A Woman of Footnote
by Katherine Ullmer
Little is known of the angels, but that they are a race above men and defend men on earth. Truth, purity and love are their substance. They are ministers of the spirit, agents of God’s Providence. Little is also known of a 19th-century Dayton woman by the name of Mary Hess, but of the little that is known, she was nothing short of an angel – an angel of mercy.
Local histories of Dayton and Montgomery County list the Hess family as among the earliest settlers in the Oregon District southeast of downtown Dayton. Mary and her husband John owned a large lot that today stretches from Sixth Street to the alley south of it between Brown and Van Buren streets.
The original Hess house stood on the now empty lot adjacent to 116 Brown St. at Trimbach Lane. It was torn down in 1973, having been abandoned and fallen into despair after numerous remodeling and uses.
To understand “Mother” Hess (as she was affectionately called) and the sacrifice it is believed she made for her community, one must understand the times she lived in. Women received little public credit for their community efforts in the early 1800s. Selflessness was expected of them and taken somewhat for granted. A local Dayton history notes that “a number of Dayton ladies” made the first efforts toward raising money for an orphanage in 1843, but there is no recording for posterity of their individual names. Historical biographies of Dayton’s early days record few of the many roles women played in the development of the city.
That is why Mary Hess, for the little we know about her, stands so tall.
Not so much as a physical description or picture of the woman remains. History refers to her as “Mother” Hess,” “old Mother Hess” or, after 1830, as “the Widow Hess.”
Her family had moved to the Oregon District before 1829, so one of the momentous events that they, along with the rest of the small Dayton community, would have experienced, would have been the opening of the nearby Miami Canal in January, 1829.
The world cheered the canals as a boon to travel and commerce, which they were. However, they also became the viaduct for the spread of the dreaded disease cholera.
The second of six great and two lesser world-wide epidemics of cholera arrived in Dayton via the canal and other unsanitary conditions in 1832 and 1833. A water-borne disease caused by contaminated water and spread easily from person to person where unsanitary conditions exist, the cholera had traveled across the Atlantic on overcrowded immigrant ships, arriving in Canada and traveling via the waterways (eventually to Dayton via the Ohio River) and canals, throughout the United States.
Cholera knew no mercy, quickly spreading from infected victim to infected victim, taking its toll of the meek and the strong, the young and the old. Those stricken with cramps and fever in the morning grew weak from severe diarrhea and vomiting as the day wore on. By nightfall they often collapsed and died from dehydration, low blood pressure and a shut-down of bodily functions.
In places like Paris and New York City, the deaths that cholera brought with it panicked the citizenry. When it hit Paris in 1832, more than 120,000 Frenchman ordered passports and fled. By July 18 of that same year, 460 deaths had been reported in New York City, and out of a population of 200,000, some 70,000 reportedly left the city.
Word of the dreaded disease spread more rapidly than the disease itself and, according to a local Montgomery County history published in 1882, “as a matter of precaution, the Town Council, in June 1832, appointed sanitary committees in each of the (five) wards, with power to compel people to clean up their property.”
Only two people died in Dayton in 1832, but 33 were to die [as] the immigrants arrived from Cincinnati via the canal in the summer of 1833, according to historian Charlotte Reeve Conover’s version of the story, “the captain would not bring his passengers up into the middle of town, but discharged them onto the bank of the canal at the foot of Ludlow Street.” The patients were all taken to a house in the area where they were cared for by a doctor and two (untrained) nurses. “In two days both nurses were dead and the doctor himself came down with the same complaint,” Conover wrote.
Other historians note that it was the house of Mary Hess on Brown Street that was made the temporary hospital to house the cholera victims. The Oregon District where she lived had only three houses at the time and since there were no hospitals and victims of the disease were usually kept away from the most populous areas of a town, her house was a logical choice.
In 1849, when an even greater epidemic of the disease hit the city, taking with it 300 lives, “again the house of Mary Hess was used as a hospital,” according to Martin J. Kelly, local historian who had done extensive research on the Oregon Historic District.
As for the personal history of Mary Hess, “there isn’t too much on her,” Kelly said. “I wish there was. She may have been some kind of old pioneer character. She lived in the 1830s, but we’re not sure when she died and we’re not sure where she’s buried. She’s not in Woodland and not in Calvary cemeteries,” where many of the early settlers were buried, he said. No one knows what happened to her husband John or where he’s buried either, he said.
Whether Mary Hess herself actually died of the cholera is not known and what her exact role in the care of the cholera victims was, has remained a mystery. The connection of her home with the care for “the wretched victims of this dread disease,” however, has allowed her to be written into Dayton history with an added tribute. Kelly, in a short paper on the Oregon District’s history written in 1966, refers to her as “heroic” Mary Hess.
Whatever her actual role, she stands, perhaps for all those early pioneer women of Dayton, the unsung angels of mercy who, like Mary Hess, helped their community and their fellow man by giving of themselves.